Carole Steketee

Exploring conditions for the effective implementation and use of computerised cognitive tools


In recent times, the term cognitive tool has been applied to computer technology that promotes reflective thinking and student-regulated learning. The interactive qualities of cognitive tools, and their ability to visually represent students' knowledge construction processes, promotes cognitive and metacognitive thinking and fosters learning for understanding. When used appropriately, cognitive tools are purported to bring about advanced cognitive gains through the amplification and augmentation of thinking and learning. These gains, however, have not been widespread given that information on how to use cognitive tools appropriately has largely eluded educators to date. The purpose of this study, therefore, was to identify an implementation framework that facilitated effective use of cognitive tools such that their potential could be maximised. This framework, which emerged from the literature, was based on a social constructivist perspective of learning where discourse and collaboration were highly valued, and students were encouraged to distribute their learning across social, physical, symbolic and intellectual resources. Known as a distributed learning environment (DLE) framework, it also permitted Insight into the extent to which cognitive tools, when used appropriately, contributed to student learning. Using action research methodology, this framework was implemented on two separate occasions into a fourth year tertiary unit. In keeping with the specific features of the DLE framework, modifications were made to the characteristics of the teaching contexts, which ultimately influenced the ways in which the students approached class activities and their learning in general. In both instances, data was collected from collaborative groups by recording and transcribing their discussions during class activities. Student interviews were also conducted and transcriptions were made of their self-reflective journals. The purpose of the first implementation was to determine the success of the framework in terms of the extent to which it encouraged students to distribute their learning to resources within the classroom. While there were varying degrees of distribution, the data suggests that the students relied heavily on many resources to support their understanding of the unit material. Based on these encouraging findings, the second Implementation proceeded and the DLE framework was used as a catalyst for the introduction of a cognitive tool called Inspiration® into the same unit the following semester. The activities within this unit were based on collaborative group work, the understandings from which were built into a concept-map that each group created for the five modules within the unit. Discourse analysis revealed that this setting enhanced student learning in that deep level socio-cognitive processes were frequently present within the collaborative groups' dialogue. By forming visual, metacognitive, collaborative and motivational partnerships with the cognitive tool, the groups were able to place structure and coherency in their dialogue, identify gaps in their understandings and take the appropriate steps towards integrating knowledge. The major Implication to emerge from this study is that the DLE framework successfully supported the inherent qualities associated with the cognitive tool. Although extensive, its features present educators with a practical opportunity to operationalise current learning theory in their classrooms and, at the same time, implement an environment that embraces and advances the learning benefits associated with cognitive tools.


Steketee, C., Herrington, J., & Oliver, R. (1999). Distributed cognition as an instructional framework. Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) Annual Conference Proceedings. Melbourne: University of Melbourne.

Steketee, C., Oliver, R., & Herrington, J., (2001). Collaborative activity: Using concept mapping software in a distributed learning environment. In C. Montgomerie, & J. Viteli, (Eds.), Proceedings of EdMedia 2001 (pp. 1796-1798). Tampere, Finland: AACE.

Steketee, C., Herrington, J., & Oliver, R. (2001). Computers as cognitive tools: Do they really enhance learning? In P.L. Jeffery (Ed.), Proceedings of the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) International Educational Research Conference, Fremantle.

Steketee, C. (2004). Action research as an investigative approach within a computer based community of learners. In R. Atkinson, C. McBeath, D. Jonas-Dwyer & R. Phillips (Eds), Beyond the comfort zone: Proceedings of the 21st ASCILITE Conference (pp. 875-880). Perth, 5-8 December.